Members of the American Indian Movement at the Wounded Knee cemetery to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Wounded Knee occupation. The ceremony honors those who stood up against the US government . Forty years ago, the American Indian Movement took over the village of Wounded Knee, before the uprising was quelled. Svetlana Bachevanova/The Stand

Warriors from the Rez

Svetlana Bachevanova

Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, SD, USA. 2006 – 2014.

This is part of an ongoing love story between me and the Lakota.

In 1966, to counter Western culture and create role models for the young generation, the East German Communist Party started producing their version of the American Western movie. In these films, the cowboys were the bad guys, depicted as rude, arrogant, sly and violent. The Indians were the good, the brave, the honorable; they were victims of imperialism. Most of the movie characters were from the Lakota tribe, probably because the classic feather headdress widely identified with Indians is Lakota.

Growing up in a communist country I watched all these movies. The Indians became my heroes. I wanted to be Crazy Horse. Every year, my parents sent me to my grandmother’s ranch where I spent the summers living in a self-made tepee, wearing a headdress made from turkey feathers.

In 2001, I moved to US to cover post 911 events and I knew, as soon as I got here, that I would travel to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, to visit places where the spirit of Crazy Horse still lived.

The poverty I found there was beyond my imagination – it could only compare with living under a communist regime. I decided to start projects that would help the Lakota, in the spirit of my childhood heroes. This one, “Warriors from the Rez,” is a sad story about the warrior tradition that sends young Lakota into the U.S. military to prove their manhood and the consequences of this when they return from war.

One of the first veterans I met was Jon Old Horse. Jon is a third generation Old Horse who went to war. He came back from Iraq a different man. When active, he was not well accepted by his fellow soldiers because he was Native American and, when he returned, he was criticized by some Lakota for going to fight on the side of the Lakota’s biggest enemy: The U.S. government.

The story of Lakota participation in the U.S. Army is filled with irony and contradictions. This is one of the reasons I found it fascinating, wanted to learn more and possibly contribute to a greater awareness of the struggle Native warriors face.

I started visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation regularly in 2006 and continued to the summer of 2014. The heroes from my childhood movies are still there. They are just very poor, some of them discouraged, some of them still fighting to restore the past dignity that was lost inside the borders of the Reservation.